Muscle tension is no joke, and sadly, most of us suffer from it to varying degrees. It can range from annoying to debilitating, and pre-COVID it had us flocking to our massage therapists and acupuncturists for treatments. Since that isn’t so easy anymore, not to mention not totally accessible to all as often as we might need it, we broke down some DIY moves to help loosen things up for various places in the body that we tend to um, uncomfortably grip.
Bending over your computer and phone all day routinely compacts tension into the neck. If you’ve ever experienced an assisted neck pull—when someone pulls on your head, elongating your neck from your shoulders—you know the orgasmic release that brings. It creates space in places you forgot you even had from all that scrunching and hunching. The good news is you can do a mellow version throughout the day all on your own, without the assist or the massage chair.
Place your palms at the base of your neck with your elbows bowed out to the sides as if you were relaxing and kicking back, except for this stretch you’ll be standing up. Straighten your posture and breathe in deeply, exhaling as you drop your chin to your chest and pull your elbows down toward your toes. Let the gravity of your hands and arms weigh your head down, fully relaxing. Take a few breaths here before slowly rolling up. Do this as many times as you like.
For tight, knotted shoulders, try using a prop to self-massage and release tension from the pressure points and meridians around your shoulder blades. A tennis ball will be softer while a lacrosse ball will be more intense, so pick your poison and work your way up.
On a flat surface like a yoga mat or carpet, place your ball down and lie back on it, finding that sweet spot behind your shoulder blade. Slowly and intentionally lift your arm and shoulder, sweeping it along the floor and lifting it up above your head in a dramatic waving motion. Practice this for one to three minutes on each side, breathing deeply in as you raise, and exhaling as you lower the arm.
Jaw tension is usually caused by stress. Involuntary clenching and even grinding teeth in your sleep can have you waking up with a tense, tight jaw, strained fine lines around the mouth, and even headaches. It’s important to be as mindful as possible in these circumstances, doing relaxation practices like keeping teeth apart while the lips are closed and making sure the tongue is on the roof of your mouth for muscle support and palate structure.
Next, try this in a mirror. Softly open and close your mouth, dropping the bottom jaw straight down, keeping your head still as to only move the bottom of the mouth. Start small, and work up on your range of motion, doing this for a few minutes each morning and night. Massage the jaw after cleansing and while applying products like serum and face oil, and even opt for a cooling jade roller during the day if work stress is inevitable.
Lower back tension can feel more alarming than pain in other parts of the body. It can come and go as cramps or spasms, rendering us immobile for stretches of time and hindering our ability to lift heavy—and even not-so-heavy—things.
For daily maintenance, do a forward-fold stretch, which is just yoga-speak for bending over and touching your toes. You can bend your knees here as much as you need; it’s not a flexibility challenge, though we do tend to get a nice hamstring stretch from it. Let the head hang heavy to release a little extra in the head, neck, and shoulders.
If a tight lower back makes even a forward fold seem intimidating, you might need some gentler care. Try lying on your back, arm outstretched into a T. Bend your knees, bring your feet up parallel to the ground in a tabletop position, and windshield wiper your legs (together, touching at the knees) back and forth from side to side. This will gently yet effectively loosen up the lower back, while also giving some movement to the spine.
It’s easy to overlook this muscular hammock, not realizing how much you rely on it while you are sitting, standing, walking, and working out. However, many of us, especially women, tend to hold on to a ton of tension in this area, which can manifest later in continence issues, painful sex, or even physical visibility via a lower abdominal pooch.
In order to become more aware of your pelvic floor as well as strengthen it, try breathing practices that involve a squeeze and release—think kegels. You can do this sitting up on your knees with your feet tucked under you, with your hands on your belly. Take a big, deep, belly breath in, and when you release, think of releasing from the lower abdominals and squeezing your kegels like you’re holding a blueberry (gotta love that image). Do this for one to five minutes each day, and work your way up to practicing this breath during cat-cow.
Bent at a keyboard all day, the wrists hold a lot more tension than you realize. Try taking a break right now and giving your wrists a massage. Doesn’t that feel kind of insanely good? You wouldn’t expect it, but that’s because of how much pressure is unwittingly put on your wrists all day, every day.
To counteract your usual position, get into forward fold again. Bend the knees as much as you need for this next part, as you slide your palms underneath your feet, pressing the tops of the hands into the floor and stepping on your hands gently. Let your toes wiggle and massage the wrist creases. Do this as many times a day as you like.
The hips are tricky. You can carry stress here, just as you can carry tension from non-ergonomic seating and poor posture. But you can also carry trauma and emotion in your body, and commonly, these feelings get stuck in the hips. You may have heard stories of people who, when finally able to release said hip tension, break down and cry long, cathartic sobs. It’s powerful stuff.
While this may not promise an emotional awakening, it can certainly help open up the hip flexors for a more comfortable existence. Lying flat on your back, bend one knee, and cross the opposite ankle over that knee into a figure 4. If that feels intense, stop there, but if not, lace your fingers behind the back of the thigh that your ankle is resting on, and pull it toward you until you feel a stretch in the hip and glute. Repeat on the other side while breathing deeply.
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